Southern California Edison Co. is suing Santa Barbara County, Caltrans, the Montecito Water District and other public agencies, claiming their inaction and negligence led to the extensive damage, injuries and deaths associated with last January’s debris flows in Montecito.
In its lawsuit, the utility asserts that the potential dangers from debris flows from the fire-denuded mountains were “a particularly well-known and predictable occurrence” based on the area’s history over the last century or more.
It cites damaging flooding and debris flows dating back to 1908, including in 1964 after the Coyote Fire, in 1969 during an El Niño winter, and in 1971 after the Romero Fire.
In the early morning hours on Jan. 9, 2018, mud and debris flows in Montecito claimed the lives of 23 people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, and forced widespread evacuations.
“Montecito’s routine debris flows did not just recently become public knowledge,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, of the 24 properties that were hardest hit in just one area during the Montecito mudslides, four were named in old news reports as having suffered significant damage in 1926, 1964 or 1969.”
In that light, Edison claims, the county and other public agencies failed to adequately size, build and maintain the debris basins, culverts and flood channels in the area; failed to correctly design and maintain roadway bridges that in several cases acted as dams for the mud and debris flows; allowed development in hazard-prone areas and failed to adequately enforce building codes; issued flawed evacuation warnings; and operated a water-distribution system that failed during the disaster, resulting in the release of millions of gallons of water during the event.
Scroll down to read the cross-complaint.
Edison has acknowledged that its equipment likely was involved in at least one of the two ignition points for the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire, which broke out on Dec. 4 north of Santa Paula in Ventura County.
Fanned by fierce Santa Ana winds, the massive blaze eventually burned into Santa Barbara County, destroying well over 1,000 structures, and leaving the hills and mountains above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria devoid of vegetation.
“To the extent Edison is in any way liable for damages resulting from the Montecito mudslides, fundamental fairness dictates that the court must consider cross-defendants’ substantial contributions to such damages,” the lawsuit concludes.
The city of Santa Barbara also is a defendant in Edison’s cross-complaint; the company contends the city conducted inadequate floodplain mapping in the Coast Village Road business district and “allowed deficient construction in areas prone to flooding and debris flows.”
Edison filed claims with the county, the city of Santa Barbara and the Montecito Water District in 2018 — a precursor to filing a lawsuit — seeking to be indemnified against damage claims arising out of the debris flows. The claims were rejected by all three agencies.
Attorney Joseph Liebman, who has filed lawsuits on behalf of several people who suffered injury or damage from the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows, rejected Edison’s claims out of hand when contacted on Tuesday.
“To blame the county or Caltrans is simply SCE’s attempt to deflect blame from itself, the responsible party in this tragedy,” Liebman told Noozhawk.
“SCE knew full well the risks of devastation a fire they caused could expose residents of Santa Barbara County to if rains were to follow the fire. Something that had occurred here in the past. SCE is the wrongdoer here. It should accept responsibility for the damage and injury it caused.”
Gina DePinto, a spokeswoman for Santa Barbara County, said the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit, and thus was unable to comment.
Colin Jones, public/legislative affairs manager for Caltrans District 5 in San Luis Obispo, provided the following response when asked for comment: “We are unable to comment on the lawsuit due to pending litigation. Please note that only about five weeks prior to the Montecito mudslides, the Thomas fire devastated more than 280,000 acres in that area.”
Montecito Water District spokeswoman Laura Camp said, “Upon the advice of district counsel, I am unable to provide a response at this time regarding Montecito Water District and any reported litigation.”